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Review | Birding hasn’t always been inclusive. New books show it can be.

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In recent years, especially after the pandemic began, an increasing number of people have been keen to spend more time outside and connect with the natural world. I know few better ways to do so than birding. As I write these words, I can hear the soft song of a yellow-rumped warbler coming from a nearby tree and bellowing croaks of common ravens in the distance. Knowing birds and their songs and calls adds such rich meaning to one’s everyday life.

But to know birds, one must have safe access to the outdoors, resources that are relatable — and affordable. When asked in an interview why birding has been an almost exclusively White hobby in the United States, Christian Cooper, the author of the new book “Better Living Through Birding” (Random House) pointed first to a simple matter: the prohibitive cost of good, new binoculars.

There’s a larger dynamic at work, too, he noted: “If you’re struggling, worrying about where the next meal is going to come from or how you’re going to make the rent, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to do a pastoral pastime like birding.”

But he also pointed out that “birds belong to no one. And therefore, they are for everyone to enjoy. ”

As the founder of the Feminist Bird Club, I am especially interested in books that offer new perspectives about engaging with the natural world. This year has been an exciting one for books that amplify the experiences of diverse birders — queer, Black, Brown and Indigenous.

Birds are disappearing from our skies. What can we do to save them?

Recent birding books differ from one another quite a bit, which is not surprising, considering the multitude of ways we relate to birds and the variety of approaches one can take in observing them. Some people participate in birding competitively, to try to see or hear as many as possible in a given year, month, region or lifetime. This thrilling pursuit can involve rushing around and ticking species off a checklist or adding species to a “life-list” in an app on your phone. In contrast, “Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching,” by Tammah Watts (Hay House), encourages a more casual or mindful approach, often forgoing a list and instead focusing on being present while observing bird behaviors and how it feels being around them.

Mya-Rose Craig’s “Birdgirl: Looking to The Skies in Search of a Better Future” (Celadon) gives the reader insight into the unique upbringing that molded her into the accomplished birder and equal rights activist that she is today. Craig, a 21-year-old Briton whose mother is from Bangladesh, writes about how birding helped her cope with her mother’s mental illness. “Deep down,” she writes of her birding expeditions, “these trips were about our survival as much as the birds.”

Far more than a traditional birding travelogue, her book highlights conservation concerns and the solutions she learns about, especially those being practiced by local Indigenous groups. In North America, the erasure of Indigenous ways of life and thought, and the displacement of Indigenous people is directly linked to the loss of habitat and species biodiversity. Beyond the destruction of the American bison that was culled to near extinction by the U.S. Army as a way to force the tribes of the Great Plains into farming, rapid agricultural development and the introduction of invasive species by European settlers has caused a large percentage of native plants and animals to dwindle.

“Birding While Indian: A Mixed-Blood Memoir,” by Thomas Gannon (Mad Creek), explores this further, tracking the devastating and far-reaching impacts of colonialism through an interweaving of history, philosophy, poetry and his personal experiences with birds.

Gannon demonstrates throughout his book that “it is impossible to write about birds and nature without being political.” As a scholar in semiotics, he examines the impacts that symbols and signs have on people and places. One may think first of the many peaceful symbolic expressions of bird song or birds in flight, but Gannon exposes the ways place names, such as Custer State Park and the disgraceful former name for the long-tailed duck perpetuate Eurocentric and colonialist powers.

Gannon is explicit about how birding is typically centered around class and White privilege. One recent example is the National Audubon Society’s shameful choice not to change the national organization’s name from one that honors a known enslaver. The organization’s decision is harmful and dismissive to the Black, Brown and Indigenous birders and conservationists it should be eager to include.

Gannon’s documented birding experiences happen almost entirely within Midwestern and western portions of the United States. “To be able to jump on a plane and visit some tropical islands for a few lifers now seems to be another assumed privilege of the birder.” And he mentions that he’s still waiting to afford that one. Thankfully, travel is not essential to enjoying birds: As Watts details in “Keep Looking Up,” birding can take place in the same location day after day, focusing on the quality of encounters in places like your backyard, rather than on the quantity of species and variety of locations.

In 2016, Arjan Dwarshuis was certainly focusing on quantity. His book “The (Big) Year That Flew By” (Chelsea Green) documents his grueling attempt to break the world record of seeing the most species of birds in one year. I sped through the book, trying to ignore feelings of jealousy as Dwarshuis described moments with species I’ve dreamed of seeing, such as the cuckoo-roller, wattled ploughbill and white-necked rockfowl.

Dwarshuis’ story may be an extreme example of competitive birding, but it gives the reader insight into how small joys and therapeutic benefits can be lost when birding in this style. When birds are reduced to a number of species on a list, what is gained from observing them? Dwarshuis’ epic trip shows a possible upside: He raised awareness and funds for conservation and gained an understanding that “the vast majority of people wouldn’t be able to make this trip even if they wanted to” because of the price tag, physical demands and more.

David Allen Sibley on the joys of watching birds

If you’re not yet a birder, all of these books, I hope, will inspire you to consider enriching your life through birds. As Cooper said, birding “is an incredibly healing thing — to be out there in whatever habitat the birds are in, to connect with the wild and to just see these feathered wonders going about their business of life.”

Molly Adams is a co-author of the upcoming book “Birding for a Better World: A Guide to Finding Joy and Community in Nature.”

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POST AUTHOR: Molly Adams

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